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Where Does Desktop Virtualization Fit in Higher Ed?

Johns Hopkins University is testing out a new virtualized desktop environment in two of its schools. The move is allowing the university to make its computing spaces more collaborative for students and extend software to students' personal computers. In the process, it's also helping to ease some of IT's workload.

It's only been a few months since Johns Hopkins University of Baltimore installed its new virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), but the school is already seeing improvements over its previous setup.

Currently in the pilot phase, the VDI has allowed the institution to address maintenance challenges and provide state-of-the-art technologies to students. The virtualized desktop service is being tested by students from the Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts & Sciences and Whiting School of Engineering, which are both located on JHU's Homewood Campus.

Why VDI?
With a full rollout scheduled for the fall, the university is now looking to reap desktop hardware savings by maximizing the use of existing infrastructure.
Graham Bouton, IT manager, said JHU had several goals in mind when it took up the virtualization project. For starters, it wanted to provide additional services to students and make available more physical computers for course-specific applications that the students weren't running on their own laptops or desktops. 

By adding virtualization to the mix, the university would be able to make those resources available to students via their own computers and devices, thus reducing the school's need for physical machines.

"One of our main objectives was to reduce the density of desktops in our computer labs," Bouton explained. "As the pilot progresses, we'll determine the changes in lab usage, and then reduce our [physical assets] accordingly."

Bouton said JHU was also be looking to eke energy savings out of its virtualization strategy, which will allow it to run fewer desktops.

A final goal involved changing the two schools' traditional "elbow-to-elbow" labs into more collaborative environments where students can study and learn in groups. For example Bouton said, seating areas will be set up to accommodate multiple users, and will include larger monitors, higher-end equipment, and more flexible workstations.

With fewer students lining up to use the desktops for common applications (since they will be available in the virtualized environment), Bouton said, the labs will be freed up for more collaborative work on those applications that "don't run well in the virtual environment."

For the pilot, the university is experimenting with Citrix XenDesktop for desktop virtualization and Microsoft App-V for application delivery within the virtualized environment. (No endorsement is implied. JHU's staff is not permitted to endorse products or vendors. These products are simply part of the pilot program.)

The 'Must-Haves' of Virtualization
Bouton said JHU's new virtualization initiative spun out from some of the school's larger departments (including the clinical and hospital computer labs), where the computing strategy has already been tested and actively used. Ultimately, he said, he'd like to see a consistent system rolled out campus-wide, but said that for the time being there are "several different projects going on" involving various virtualization solutions.

"We've been exploring our virtualization options for about four years now, and have looked at many of the early applications and rollouts," said Bouton. During that research phase, it was determined that VDI would be an efficient and effective way to make applications available to students via their own computers and devices. "Desktop virtualization seemed like a natural step."

To take that step, Bouton said he and his team came up with a list of "must haves" for the new system. It had to:

  • Reside on a Web-accessible platform;
  • Be browser agnostic;
  • Run reliably; and
  • Be installed and configured in a way that allows students to get up and running quickly.

"We don't own or manage the students' devices, so we needed a system that would be straightforward enough for them to use with Macs, PCs, or Linux OS operating systems," Bouton explained, "and that included multiple types of browser support."

On the server side, JHU was looking for a backend infrastructure with centralized management capabilities that its own IT team could handle.

What JHU didn't want was to create a scenario where its IT department would be swamped with virtualization-related support calls and requests.

"When we tested the system, we looked at everything from the student's perspective--from connect to launch to actual use," said Bouton. "Our goal was to not have them endure a prolonged configuration and initialization procedure."

A few months into the pilot phase, JHU has already made a few changes to a primary computer lab, including the introduction of more collaborative workspaces for students. "We haven't reallocated any hardware or furnishings yet," said Bouton, "but we have made some tentative changes and improvements to our main lab, with more revisions on the way."

The university is also in the early stages of being able to offer mobile access to the virtualized environment to students who are equipped with tablets, iPhones and other devices.

"We're using a client that allows the devices to connect and get the same applications list that they would from a full Web browser," Bouton explained, adding that the options are "somewhat limited" by the device itself. "Our goal is to be able to expand those options in the future."

With its VDI pilot in place since March, Bouton said JHU is currently working out licensing agreements with various software vendors. "Assuming we're able to get the licensing issues straightened out, we'll use the summer for testing," said Bouton, "and then roll out the full initiative when students come back to school in the fall."

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